A snow day through me out of whack on Friday afternoon but I have returned to tell you about everything that you may have missed while shovelling your driveway. Here’s The Starting Five:
1. For the first time all season the target was on the backs of the Auburn Tigers. On Tuesday night, the Tigers trailed Ole Miss 45-35 at the half only to go on to outscore the Rebels by a 50-25 scoreline in the second half. Saturday in Starkville, Bruce Pearl’s team found themselves behind once again but used yet another strong second half performance blowing past the Bulldogs 52-33 in the second frame to remain unbeaten in league play and to extend their win streak to 14 games. That’s two double-digit halftime deficits in one week followed by two 50-point second half outcomes. Auburn vs opponents in the second half last week: 102-58.
I think I said it last week, but I’ll say it again: It was only a matter of time until Pearl turned Auburn into a contender in the SEC and, in turn, nationally. The Tigers rank in the Top 25 according to KenPom in both adjusted offensive efficiency and tempo, 16th and 23rd, respectively, while sitting just inside the Top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency at 45. It’s no surprise that a team that loves to get up and down the court and can ratchet up the defensive pressure at a moments notice was able to wear down on opponents in the second half.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 14, 2018
Now that the FBI mess has been partially settled, as sophomore center Austin Wiley has been ruled ineligible until the start of the 2018-19 season, although the fate of Danjel Purifoy is still up in the air, Pearl has a clearer picture of what his personnel will be moving forward and has one less distraction. The two second-half comebacks find the Tigers ranked 17th in the AP poll, the programs highest ranking since February of 2000 when they were ranked 11th. Want another example of how improved SEC basketball is? Wednesday night’s trip to Tuscaloosa should garner a sellout crowd to watch two teams that are likely destined for an NCAA Tournament appearance. It might not be the Iron Bowl, but I expect plenty of bad blood to pour out onto the floor at Coleman Coliseum.
2. Tennesse easily had the second best week, behind Auburn, in the SEC. Following a 1-2 start to SEC play, the Volunteers found themselves looking at a week with Kentucky coming to town, followed by a trip down I-40 west to Nashville to face rival Vanderbilt, capped by a matchup with a Texas A&M team that was desperate to get back on track after slipping from a No. 5 ranking in two short weeks. Well, the Vols used a 47-28 second-half surge to buck the nasty trend that was becoming a sickness on Rocky Top, then showed that the trend was now a pattern on the opposite side of the continuum by outscoring Vandy 57-39, while also putting up the most points, 92, ever scored by a Vol team in Memorial Gymnasium. Even more impressive was the win Saturday night against the Aggies. I’ve spoken numerous times about how when this team is whole they’re the best team in the SEC. Well, on Saturday the final piece of the shattered puzzle, Duane Wilson returned to the lineup but that didn’t matter, as Tennessee won their third straight 75-62, sending the Aggies to 0-5 in the league.
The Volunteers jump from 24 to 21 in the AP poll and have come closer to finding their offensive identity. Sophomore forward Grant Williams was unguardable Tuesday night in Nashville, scoring a career-high 37 points on 12 of 20 shooting. Junior forward Admiral Schofield has marked his place as the second scorer on the team, providing 22 of his own on Tuesday, followed by 12 more of Saturday. Now, head coach Rick Barnes just needs to find one more guy or a level of consistency coming off the bench. Knoxville native Jordan Bowden offered some hope that he might be that guy after back-to-back double-digit scoring outputs this week, scoring 15 and 12, respectively. Bowden still has to work on being more aggressive in order to provide that third scoring option, but he’s certainly showed that he has the potential.
3. Sticking with A&M, I think that this is the breaking point for Billy Kennedy and his team. The projected starting lineup up of D.J Hogg, Robert Williams, Admon Gilder, Tyler Davis and Duane Wilson all played 20-plus minutes in Saturday night’s loss in Knoxville. Despite that, A&M was outfought by a Tennessee team that has identified themselves by winning games in that manner. That’s all good and well on the part of Tennessee, but for A&M not to show more fight is just another disappointment in what has become among the most disappointing seasons in college basketball this year. The Aggies were the only team to have beaten West Virginia until the second-ranked Mountaineers fell on the road Saturday at Texas Tech. The potential is there for this team to be among the best in the SEC, if not the best. Yes, the missed foul call at the end of the Kentucky game was egregious, but you’d be foolish to think that the road team is ever getting that call at Rupp. Kennedy can question that all he wants but his biggest question that needs to be answered is his team’s maturity. Something that you wouldn’t think a team led by most upperclassmen would be dealing with. The Aggies welcome Ole Miss and Missouri to College Station this week. They’d be wise to have the ‘come to Jesus meeting’ now and start to turn this sucker around or else an NIT berth may be in order, if they’re even that fortunate.
The SEC feels like it has no true top, middle, or bottom. League is incredibly balanced. Conference’s most talented team — Texas A&M — is 0-5.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 14, 2018
4. According to ESPN’s BPI, Florida has a 31 percent chance of winning the SEC regular-season title, behind Auburn at 55 percent and ahead of Tennessee and Kentucky, 24 and 17 percent, respectively. The Gators have certainly shown that potential since stepping into SEC play. They handled a young Mississippi State team at home 71-54 before falling on the road in Oxford to an Ole Miss team that has proven to be a difficult out in the early conference season. The other team of note listed in the BPI percentages, Kentucky, is a tad bit surprising to be pegged as the fourth best option to come out on top in the battle for the regular-season crown. The Wildcats have shown they’re capable of winning on the road, 2-1 in the league thus far, and may be seeing the beginning of what could be a dominant conference campaign from freshman reserve Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (leads team with 16.0 points per game in SEC play). I mocked Dick Vitale’s “bold” proclamation that the SEC title still runs through Lexington, but I’m not ready to buy into any of the other three until I see how they fare at Rupp.
By the way, how has John Calipari gone this long with Gilgeous-Alexander on the bench as his backup point guard? It was so evident on Saturday at Vanderbilt that he was, and is, the teams best player, and he has been since the Louisville game on December 29. If that’s the dude who he’s bringing off the bench, how are you going to tell me that Kentucky has the fourth best chance at winning the SEC title?
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Kentucky’s two games without Quade Green: 19.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.5 APG. 13-21 from the floor, 11-16 from the FT line.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 14, 2018
DOUBLE ROTHSTEIN, BABY!!!
FWIW, KenPom has Tennessee ranked ahead of Auburn, Kentucky and Florida, in that order.
5. Other thoughts:
- I’m a little concerned about Georgia. They have the conference’s best player in senior forward Yante Maten but don’t seem to have much else, as far as consistent play is involved, around him. Freshman forward Rayshaun Hammonds was expected to be a key contributor and has at times, but predictably so is battling consistency issues. There may not be one glaring statistic that points to J.J. Frazier’s departure but it’s very evident that Mark Fox’s Bulldogs miss the second option on offense.
- I didn’t think that it would be possible for any team to win at Bud Walton Arena this year, but LSU evaporated that thought process last week with a 75-54 arse kicking of the Razorback. Mike Anderson’s team ended their 3 game skid against his former employer, Missouri, but still, have ways to go defensive—currently 65th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.
- Good road win at LSU for Avery Johnson and Alabama. The Tide has now won two straight following a 0-2 week with both games being played after from Titletown.
- Mississippi State is finding out what life is like in conference play when you play the 344th best non-conference SOS.
- All seems lost for Vandy, but damn if these guys don’t compete every night.
Georgia (11-5, 2-3) at LSU (11-5, 2-2) 6:00 PM CT ESPNU
Vanderbilt (6-11, 1-3) at Mississippi State (13-4, 1-3) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
#18 Kentucky (14-3, 4-1) at South Carolina (11-6, 2-3) 8:00 PM CT ESPN
Ole Miss (10-7, 3-2) at Texas A&M (11-6, 0-5) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network
#17 Auburn (16-1, 5-0) at Alabama (11-6, 3-2) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
Arkansas (12-5, 2-3) at Florida (12-5, 4-1) 6:00 PM CT ESPN2
#21 Tennessee (12-4, 3-2) at Missouri (12-5, 2-2) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network